Atlas Shucked

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Tizi Oussem, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Walnut orchards provide important income to farm families. But what if you can’t use a tractor on the steep mountainside where your family tends its three trees? Yes, THREE trees. Maybe four.

The arid and rocky High Atlas Mountains of Morocco are not prime walnut orchard lands. In fact they are the opposite of where walnuts are grown in the fertile and flat Central Valley of California where the long straight rows of massive walnut trees send their roots deep into rich alluvial soils.

The one thing these two places have in common is that melting snow and rainfall in the high mountains provide the irrigation needed to grow walnuts.

In Berber villages in the High Atlas Mountains walnuts are grown on the lower slopes of massive rocky mountainsides. The walnut trees are not in rows but are scattered along the slope parallel with winding irrigation ditches. The ditches are hand made channels supported with stone walls. Below the walnuts generations of families have built and maintained terraces for crops such as wheat, corn, mint, and vegetables. The soil behind the terraces was carried and placed by hand after the stone walls were built.

On my first day of a guided trek when I walked into the first walnut “orchard” I thought they were just some native trees growing randomly on the footslopes. I was far from home in north Africa and didn’t really think of it as an orchard at all. Then I noticed that the leaves looked familiar and realized that they were walnuts. Over the next several days I learned about the small-scale walnut industry from my guide.

As we walked through little villages we would always enter or exit near the walnut trees that belonged to those families. My guide, Omar, explained that within the jumble of scattered trees each family owned several trees. We were there during harvest season. We would pass entire families from pre-school children to grand parents working together or resting in the shade.

Harvest is accomplished with long sticks that are used to whack the branches and knock down the nuts. In the old trees someone had to climb up into the tree and reach up and whack the upper branches while balanced on a wobbly branch. The children and older family members gathered the green nuts off the ground and placed them into large woven plastic saddlebags on the family mule. The nuts were then spread out on the flat roofs of the homes to dry.

Then they are shucked and taken to market in Marrakech.

On the last day of my walk we stopped at Omar’s home and he and his wife provided a snack and hot mint tea. I was hoping to meet his father and his children, but his four year old daughter and his parents were down the hill harvesting walnuts.

Several generations live together in the family home and they take care of each other. They depend on the hard work of everyone in the family. Some of them work on the walnuts, produce, and apples. Other family members may be mountain guides, muleteers, or even run a small store or café for the mountain tourists.

They grow their walnuts in places where many other people wouldn’t even consider orchards. And it works for them. No tractors. No tree shakers. No low conveyor systems moving the nuts to trailers. No frost protection.

This posting is not really intended to be an agricultural report. But I think that it is very interesting that these Berber families have made a living farming behind these stone walls and terraces.

There are more photographs in my Morocco gallery. Follow the Photography link above.

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